In the last 6 weeks of our church’s Sunday services, we asked the congregation what topics or questions they would like the pastors to preach about. This topic was the one I chose because, believe it or not, there were harder ones!
I offer this sermon with a big dose of humility, and with thanks to the Twinbrook Baptist family for welcoming me into their community and their hearts in our years together.
soli deo gloria
How Can I Know God’s Will?
A sermon offered to the people of God
at Twinbrook Baptist Church
July 21, 2019
As I sat and wrestled with this topic in my study this week, a hard truth came to the forefront: absolutely NO ONE has a handle on “Knowing God’s Will.” Or, in the words of 18thcentury poet Alexander Pope, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Yet I, being a fool, am tackling this topic with you this morning. It’s something we all struggle with, if we are honest. How CAN we know God’s Will? That is, if it is even possible! In the rush and reality of life, many times our decisions are our “best guess in the moment.”
What do we do in circumstances where there are two (or more) decent choices… which one is right? There are life decisions which are important: this house? this spouse? this car? this college? this treatment for my cancer? And then, there are a thousand less critical, but still important, decisions that we make all the time!
Some of the pontificating I read this week was, in a word, laughable. It’s all very well and good to write things such as, “like church patriarch George Müller, set aside time early every morning to pray and seek the Lord’s face.” Or… “go to a quiet place each day and sit in silence.” And the reality is that we are hard-pressed to find the time to pay bills, do the laundry, and wash the dishes, let alone walk the dogs, vacuum, and put out the trash. And, if you are still working, go to work. Life seems impossibly full to go “sit in silence.”
Solitude, prayer, and meditation are excellent spiritual disciplines. But quite honestly, knowing God’s Will does not depend on your doing them.
As I unwrapped this topic, there were three main ideas that surfaced for me:
- We can know God’s Will when we understand WHO God is
- We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed
- We can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us
So let’s try to unpack this, together.
I. We can know God’s Will when we understand Who God is: Jeremiah 29: 4-14
Knowing God’s Will is based first and foremost on who GOD IS. The Infinite One never changes. The promises of God are forever. The Bible helps us know the nature and character of God. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures express the historical relationship between humans and God, between the Creator and the created.
If you read and learn about God from the past, and hear what God will do, you have a basis for understanding what God’s Will is. And though Scripture expresses historically God’s will, we are a part of discerning it in the present. It takes time, yes. It takes reflection, certainly. It takes a conversation with the God who knows us. Not some esoteric God off in the clouds somewhere.
In our first scripture this morning, Jeremiah 29, we are eavesdropping towards the end of a conversation with God and God’s people in Babylon. Though they feel like outcasts, carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon, God is still intimately involved and engaging them. Thanks to Jeremiah, they are hearing God’s words to them. Specifically. Personally. Prophetically.
We often zero in on the latter verses in this passage. They are certainly verses that comfort me:
“For I know the plans, I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11, NLT)
BUT – if we take these words in context (always a good thing) and go back to the earlier verses in the chapter, there are words of challenge and correction before these words of comfort and hope. God tells them to put down roots, to invest where they are, to work for the prosperity of all. God tells them to avoid those who would mislead them or (bluntly) to avoid those who tell lies in the name of God! And God promises that God will deliver them.
I want to speak for a moment about those who lie and mislead in the Name of God. It is a terrifying thing for me personally to be a preacher and make bold statements about what God wants, or who God is. Far too many preachers and pastors have sold a “cookbook Christianity” that claims everything in our lives will be “in God’s perfect Will” if one does these 7 Steps of Godliness (or whatever it’s titled.) (And that you can buy their book in the lobby after the service.) It’s one of the reasons that many people have left the Church and Christianity. A life of faith is not that simple. It is a life-long pursuit of knowing God more fully, more deeply, more passionately. It’s not a fill-in-the blank book. Sorry. If you were looking for that kind of answer… I will disappoint you.
Jeremiah’s words pull no punches. It is a clear slapdown to false prophets and teachers. (Again. A moment of reflection and self-examination for this pastor.) It is a smear on the word “Christian” that there are “Christian leaders” who support elected officials who are racist, homophobic, xenophobic and power-hungry. There are so-called “Christian” clergy who hold our government in higher esteem than the God of the Bible. There are self-titled “Christian” churches who claim homophobia as their Gospel. There are businesses who claim they are “Christian” (because they are closed on Sundays?) who discriminate on the basis of sexual and gender identity. Jeremiah would call them “fortune-tellers” or “diviners” – people who use their place of privilege and preferred way of life to speak for God either by implication or by what keeps them in power. You’ve seen them on the news or in advertisements. You know who I mean and I won’t give them credibility by mentioning them by name. But they are not speaking for God!
In the broadest sense of knowing God’s will, you have to know God. Despite distractions and confusion and disappointments. When we know who God is – truly – then we can see our way through the underbrush of decision-making.
A.W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holysuggests there are times where God has an “emphatic no” and an “emphatic yes” — and then there are times where we need to use our own “sanctified preference” and wisdom to make a decision. A decision that is made by beginning with Who. God. Is.
Like Abraham and Sarah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Moses, Solomon, Miriam, Deborah, Mary, Martha, Priscilla, and a host of other God-listeners from the Bible, we can know God’s Will when we know Who God is. The God of every generation.
Day by day,
dear Lord of Thee
Three things I pray:
To see Thee more clearly,
To love Thee more dearly,
To follow Thee more nearly,
Day by day.
– St. Richard of Chichester
II. Secondly, We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed. Matthew 6:25-34; Proverbs 3:5-6; 1 Kings 9:11-12
Knowing God’s Will is clearer when we understand how God reveals it. As you heard in our text, Elijah heard the voice of God not in a thunderclap nor in the windstorm nor fire nor earthquake, but in the “still, small voice of God,” or as the New Living Translation phrases it, “a gentle whisper.”
If we are honest, we prefer a God who is loud and clanging. It’s just easier. Yes. Or no. Black. Or white.
Should I go kill someone?
DING DING DING NO!!!!!!
Should I take some of my earnings and support God’s Work in the world? DING DING DING YES!!!
[THAT WAS EASY]
Our coffeemaker recently died. (I know. Tragic.) Did we play “the hand of fate” and pick one at random from the shelf at a Big Box store? Did we search the scriptures in He Brews? (ha ha) (sorry not sorry) No… Ken did a cursory review of the options and we then picked one and bought it. We used, as Tozer said, our “sanctified preference.” We are among the caffeinated. Thanks be to God!
I’m making light of decision-making, but in reality, there are important decisions that can set off a course of other decisions. Sometimes, our decisions are based on availability and opportunity. Many times, our decisions are based on our wealth, our education, and the color of our skin. Sometimes decisions are made based on reasons that we cannot control. When we buy a house (and where). When we downsize. What kind of car, where we work… Which doctors we choose… And so on. Many times, God is not in the decision-making process at all. At least, not consciously.
But when you are faced with more than one option, how do you choose?
When we are facing multiple decisions, the stress mounts. We resort to a quick fix decision with a sort of “Magic 8 Ball” mentality.
Should I buy a Volvo? “Better not tell you now.”
Should we sell everything and move to Canada? “All signs point to yes.”
Kevin DeYoung in his book “Just Do Something” says:
“God is not a Magic 8 ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for him.” (p. 24)
The problem is that the popular practice in Christianity is to look for a sign. And we sanctify chance and opportunity as God’s will. We need to use the brains that God gave us.
Have you ever said or heard any of these phrases? Truth telling here — I have!! Let me poke some holes in these common ways we seek God’s Will…
- Well, I’m looking to the Lord to give me a sign… (um… you have a brain!)
- God has given me a feeling about this… (only one feeling? and you are basing your decision on a feeling?)
- I prayed for God to take away this opportunity and God didn’t, so I guess it’s God’s Will… (Or… maybe you are supposed to resist the temptation to do it?)
- Please pray with me that I will be able to… (instead of “please pray that I will know and hear what God asks of me related to…”)
- I was reading in my Bible and it said, “Go and do likewise…” (I call that Bible Bingo)
Whenever we rely on just our circumstances, and just our intellect, and just our opportunities, we are leaving God out of the picture.
More often than not, God is the waiting companion in our decision making, not the loud air horn. The still, and quiet Voice, the whisper, the faithful One.
It is not easier to know God’s Will if you are a pastor, trust me. Particularly when I am tired and face a tough decision, there is frequently neither a “yes” nor a “no” … just… silence.If you, like me, have been in this journey of faith for a while, you might get a case of “the shoulds”.
…I should know what God wants, but I don’t.
…I should have had an answer by now, but there isn’t one.
…I should spend more time in silence and fasting and prayer, then I’ll know…
Don’t “should” on yourselves!
As a friend of mine rightly commented to me when we were up half the night, “is insomnia God’s way of getting our attention, or is it the result of our late-night run to Taco Bell?” Well… clearly, it was bad choices on our part. That time, anyway.
Knowing God’s Will is not a transaction where you deposit 6 prayers and get an answer. (THAT WAS EASY)
In SEEK YE FIRST – it is the seeking that is important. Not expecting that because you made an attempt to “seek” that you can have what you ask for! We get this idea that it is a contractual agreement.
It’s TRUST in the Lord (despite all my doubts) and keep depending on God…
It’s knowing your beloved-ness in God’s eyes. Your place in God’s heart. You are more valuable than sparrows. You are cared for more than the flowers of the field.
Dr. Renita Weems, Hebrew scholar, and a womanist and feminist theologian, wrote in her book Listening for God:
I had grown so accustomed to believing in a God who spoke thunderously and in spectacular ways that I didn’t think I could survive when it came time to stumble in divine silence. Just as noise cannot always be helped, neither is God’s silence always our fault. It is just part of the journey. I had to learn how to pay attention. I had to learn how to perceive the divine in new ways and in new places. I had to stop peeping behind altars for epiphanies and learn to let the lull between epiphanies teach me new ways for communicating with God, for reverencing the holy, and for listening to God. (p. 22)
Besides the seeming silence of God, there is a problem. The world is getting louder. How do we filter out the 24/7 news cycle or the daily responsibilities that distract us? If you can, turn down the volume on the background noise. It does not guarantee that you will know what God’s will is, but you will have a breather to re-set and listen some more.
I am a social media hound. I admit it. I tweet. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Tumblr. I blog. Sometimes in reading social media posts, God gets my attention. Sometimes it brings needed humor to a bleak news day. Other times, I am off on rabbit trails and diversions. Taking a moment to hit the “mute” button helps me get back my equilibrium.
Now I’m an extrovert. How God leads me will be different for many of you.
How does God lead you? How is God’s Will revealed for you?
It may be in any of the ways I’ve described. It may be something else. It may be in the thunder. It may be in the whisper.
But know this, friends… if we seek, if we ask, if we listen… God will lead us.
III. We can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us. Romans 8:18-28
So we’ve talked about how
- We can know God’s Will when we understand WHO God is
- We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed
Now – let’s think about how we can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us, individually and corporately. We frequently get caught up in our OWN questions and prayers. We forget that big picture – what does God want for humanity, as a whole?
The Romans passage that was just read for us sets out the premise:
We are waiting for the day – the day of a future glory, a promised day of redemption. The day God’s people receive their inheritance, and we are released from sin and suffering. We sit in this tension of the present reality and our future hope. The Apostle Paul certainly understood what it meant to suffer, to wait for God’s promise of freedom to be revealed. He describes a longing for release like groaning in childbirth. As pain after pain of childbirth does its job, preparing a woman’s body to deliver a baby, so the suffering we see and experience is a part of our waiting. Absolutely no woman who has given birth will tell you, “oh that was fun! Let’s do that again!” I mean, unless her drugs were awesome!
No, she will more than likely tell you, “it was worth it!” The pain. The recovery.
I was worth it because she is now holding this new life in her arms and marveling at the promise of the future. There is nothing more life-affirming than holding the next generation and seeing all the possibilities of God ahead for this new little person. And, coincidentally, for you, too.
The problem with this Romans passage is that we take a verse out of context and hang onto that as if it were the whole Gospel. We memorize it in Sunday school and cross-stitch it on pillows!
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.
That does not mean, “God will take all of my stubbornness, meanness, and stupid mistakes and somehow make them all work out OK.”
But that’s how we see this. Am I right?
I think a better take on it would be, “in spite of my stubbornness, meanness, and stupid mistakes, God loves me, and groans with me as I stumble through this life with God’s love and care supporting me.”
What if God doesn’t answer my prayers (the way I want God to?) Did I not pray enough? Did I say I was going to pray for someone… and then I forgot? Is it my fault that someone’s prayers weren’t answered? Am I such a bad person that God doesn’t listen?
When I was stressing about this one time, my mentor Diann looked at me, smiled, and said, “Deb, your prayers are not that powerful. And you are not more powerful than God!”
Sometimes, maybe we are really praying, “Dear God, please make everything nice for everyone.” We make God the “Trouble Exterminator” – removes all fears and crises in 7 prayers or your money back! That’s not how it works, friends!
It also doesn’t mean that you are praying the “wrong” way, or somehow missed the “bullseye” of God’s will. There is no “center of God’s will.” There is freedom and hope and an infinite number of ways that will honor and please God. So instead of worrying about whether or not you are praying the RIGHT way, start the conversation. Ask God to help US see what God will do in a given situation.
The pain of unanswered prayer is that sometimes, in this broken world we live in, the unwanted happens…
- A collision on the Beltway
- A freak accident at the beach
- A cancer treatment stops working
- A job is given to someone else
- A mass shooting rips apart a community, a school, or a workplace
- A government policy is in place that is horribly wrong
When we know God, when we understand how God is revealed, we have a better understanding of what God wants for us. The three are inter-connected. We grieve when we see terrible things happening because we know it is out of sync with the God we have come to know. We are groaning!
Henri Nouwen, author and Catholic priest, wrote that instead of trying to figure out what God wants, we have to cultivate a listening heart. He says:
“…praying is not only listening tobut also listening with [God].”
“We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow.” (pg 83-84) (Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life.)
In the person of Jesus, we see the full embodiment of God. We find full acceptance in God’s Love. We know forgiveness. We are embraced as children of God, not strangers or immigrants who have to earn our way inside. We are brought to the Welcoming Table, to remember and celebrate together that we are beloved, we are claimed, we are to be living examples of the God we worship.
Jesus lived among us as a testimony of God’s faithfulness. Jesus turned upside the idea that doing “good thing x” means you get a place of favor in God’s eyes. The revolutionary Jesus saved us from ourselves, and sees us with eyes of compassion and full acceptance. We are Beloved. We are claimed, cherished and saved through Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s advocacy for us.
What does God want for us? To be fully loved, fully known, and fully God’s own.
So may be all be. By God’s Grace.
20 Now may the God of peace—
who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great Shepherd of the sheep,
and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—
21 may he equip you with all you need
for doing his will.
May he produce in us,
through the power of Jesus Christ,
every good thing that is pleasing to him.
All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.
Hebrews 13:21-21 (New Living Translation)